Friday, March 12, 2010

Should We Ignore Bad News?

If I am able to conduct another day school census in the 2013-2014 school year, the research will show that enrollment in U.S. schools has grown by more than 20,000 since the previous census five years earlier. This would mean at least 250,000 students in full-time Jewish schools, surely an impressive number.

When the statistics are broken down according to day school category, a different picture will emerge. Nearly all of the growth – and perhaps all of it – will come from the yeshiva world and chassidic sectors which continue to experience high fertility, a reality that affects not at all what is produced by the pseudo-scientific demographers who continue to report that the Orthodox are no more than ten percent of all American Jews. In all other day school sectors, the story is either stagnant enrollment or, more likely, decline.

A person greatly committed to the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter schools circulated an email several months ago urging recipients to focus on good news. That’s a useful idea, provided that the other news isn’t treated as if it doesn’t exist, particularly when the other news is, unfortunately, the more important story. The Solomon Schechter’s are hemorrhaging students and losing some schools along the way and the process is ongoing.

A case in point is the Solomon Schechter of Nassau County. I visited the school twice years ago and was impressed by the commitment of its leaders, professional and lay. Unfortunately, enrollment has declined steadily, both because of the tuition crisis and the woes affecting Conservatism. There has been talk of closing the high school. In a recent report, school leaders describe a strategy for keeping it open that includes diminishing the Judaic component and raising tuition. The approach won’t work.

Other Schechters are in trouble, some facing what appear to be insurmountable problems. I write this in sadness and without the slightest sense of satisfaction. The movement’s leaders seem committed to the strange notion that Conservatism will be saved by conserving less of its Judaic content. The apparent notion is that since watering down has worked for the Reform, let’s try it. In an article in the terrific first issue of the Jewish Review of Books that has just been published, Dr. Lance J. Sussman, Senior Rabbi of Reform Congregation Kehilath Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, writes that “The Reform movement has probably contracted by a full third in the last ten years!”

There is a better model to emulate. If Conservatives want to salvage their Solomon Schechters, they need to strengthen their Judaics and find ways of reducing tuition. They should advocate for government support of the secular or academic program of day schools under religious sponsorship, as key figures in the movement did in the 1950s through much of the 1970s. In a characteristically insightful but uncharacteristically angry piece in the latest Commentary, Jack Wertheimer who remains a significant presence at the Jewish Theological Seminary writes about “The High Cost of Jewish Living” and makes a pitch for government aid. The article’s subtitle speaks of “the perverse refusal of the American Jewish community to look after its own.” As an illustration of this perversity he quotes an official of the National Council of Jewish Women opposing government aid who said, “We can’t put a chink in the wall [of separation] just because it will help Jewish children.”

There are Jewish leaders who seem to believe that contemporary Jewish life is a spiritual suicide pact.

It isn’t only the Conservative and other non-Orthodox schools that are suffering declines. A number of Modern Orthodox institutions have lost students. As the notion that public schools or charter schools or some other arrangement is an acceptable Jewish alternative becomes more acceptable, it is certain that there will be additional defections from day school education. The Modern Orthodox have high tuition to blame for their losses. That’s not true of Chabad schools or those that serve an immigrant or outreach population. Their growing difficulties stem from an inability to attract sufficient financial support.

The Chabad school in affluent Port Washington which is right next to Great Neck came close to shutting down in mid-school year as its ambitious program did not receive sufficient support. Shalom Torah Centers in New Jersey, perhaps the outstanding kiruv or outreach day school in the country, has just filed for bankruptcy, as a group of devoted lay people with much other crucial communal responsibilities struggle to keep it open. While some of its problems are unique, in general it shares the fate of the cluster of immigrant and outreach schools that have lost much of their enrollment and much of their support.

Even in the fervently Orthodox sectors, payrolls are further behind than they have been at any time in at least a generation. Jack Wertheimer notes that there are “insular” Orthodox schools that charge only a few thousand dollars per year. Actually, the number of such schools is quite large and, as impossible as it may seem, there are more than a few Orthodox schools that receive on an average significantly below several thousand dollars a year in tuition payments per student.

The enrollment of these schools will continue to grow because of high fertility and these schools will remain open because of the devotion and sacrifice of faculty and staff. Elsewhere in the day school world where tuition is far higher and the dedication is not as high, the losses will mount. It may be comforting to deny what is already a reality, but such comfort would be born out of self-delusion. The news is bad and it should be reported.